A WEBSITE, a busy Twitter account and a headquarters in Old Town with a square-and-compasses symbol over the door.
For a supposedly secret society, the Freemasons are hardly what you’d call difficult to track down.
To the layperson – to this one, anyway – they seem about as secret as the Lions, Rotary or Round Table.
Something else they have in common with those organisations is charity work and a welcome for potential new members.
I was invited to the Masonic Hall in The Planks to meet Francis Wakem, who is retiring from the office of Provincial Grand Master for Wiltshire as his 10-year term ends, and his successor, Philip Bullock.
Francis is a retired Wiltshire police chief superintendent, while Philip is retired from sales and marketing in the pharmaceutical industry.
“I joined in 1976 at Corsham,” said Francis. “I was serving on CID and a colleague was a member. It came up in conversation and I asked.
“There is a belief in some people that you have to be invited to become a Mason. That’s not true and probably never has been.
“Freemasonry in Wiltshire is a family. We have 2,000-plus members and we have 2,000-plus families – wives, partners, children.
“I am part of that. It’s not only what we do in the Lodge room; it’s the fact that we are ordinary blokes doing our bit within the community where we live.”
Philip said: “I joined Freemasonry through my wife, strangely enough, because that’s not the normal route.
“At the church we belong to in Easterton, the two church wardens there were Masons. My wife found that out because her friend was going to a ladies’ evening, and said, ‘Philip’s always been interested in Freemasonry.’ “I got a phone call, I arrived at the pub and six months later I arrived in Freemasonry.
“I’ve been a Freemason since February of 1997.
“I knew they were involved in local charities and that seemed to appeal to me. To get involved with a charity in the local community appealed just as much as contributing to a national charity.
“The second aspect was the expanding of your sphere of friends, because Freemasonry does that.”
There are a little over 2,000 members in Wiltshire, of whom about 500 are members of the nine Swindon lodges.
County-wide, members raise about £100,000 for charity annually. Locally they have helped causes including Swindon Women’s Aid, Prospect Hospice, the Samaritans and the SMASH mentoring group. They have also provided more than 20,000 Tender Loving Care Teddies for young hospital patients.
Freemasonry began as a fraternal organisation in London in 1717, and there are more than 250,000 members in England and Wales.
The founders established rituals and symbolism inspired by those of the stonemasons who worked centuries earlier.
It is open to men of good character and there are parallel women-only organisations.
Modern Masons reject the notion of being a secret society, not least because details of most of the rituals are readily accessible via Google. They’re also anxious to dispel other misconceptions. The handshake, for example.
“People talk about having a secret handshake,” said Francis.
“We have a handshake which, if you like, goes back to the stonemasons. It’s a form of recognition only to be used within the Lodge room. It should not ever be used outside the Lodge room.
“People talk about the ‘rolled up trouser leg brigade’ or similar words. Yes, the trouser is rolled when a member takes his obligation, when he joins. He kneels on a bare knee.
“We wear the regalia. Why? Again, you can go back to the stonemasons. A stonemason wears a protective apron. The apron also shows our qualifications, if you like, or – a word I don’t like using – rank.
Why do we wear white gloves? Again, it’s symbolic.The stonemasons, wore protective gloves.”
And what about those supposedly secret levels of Freemasonry beyond the commonly known Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason?
“There are other orders in Freemasonry. Are there secrets within them? No, there are not.
“There are 33 degrees. I’ve got 30 of them and Philip has got 18. It’s not secret – it’s just a progression through years of service.”
Then there are those rumours of strange religious rituals. In fact, Freemasons must believe in a supreme being – whatever their religion happens to be.
The supreme being is referred to as The Great Architect Of The Universe so as to be non-denominational.
The organisation welcomes inquiries from potential new members, and its website is pglwilts.org.uk Philip added: “Freemasonry is very relevant in the 21st century. It means much to many people. It can bring you new friends. It can give you that very nice warm feeling as a human being to help disadvantaged people along the way.
“You can have a very good social life and that’s a key element. It’s not just what we do in the Lodge room– which we find quite special.”